Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Last Surviving Soldier...

... to have fought in trench warfare during WWI was not a hero, maybe never even killed a German during the war, although he recalled at least one whom he had shot with his machine gun and revolver. That was in his very first battle in 1917.

What brings him to noteworthiness today is that he was the last living of all known soldiers to have fought in the trenches during World War I, at 111 years and 38 days he was also the oldest man in England, was also one of the oldest in the world, and he passed away on July 25th. Another thing that made him noteworthy was that he never believed the war was worth the effort. His father was wounded in WWI in 1914 and was returned home where he told Harry of the war's horrors in an attempt to keep his son from voluntarily joining the army. It was to no avail as Harry was called to join (conscripted) in 1916. He stepped foot on the continent in 1917 and faced his first battle then.

During his first engagement that involved an attack, Patch recalls the terrors he experienced. As his unit advanced (he was a machine gunner) he came across another British soldier who begged Harry to kill him because he had been severely wounded. A moment later the soldier cried out for she who which all men call at such times - his mother - and he perished. Patch also described the first German he shot, a soldier during the same engagement. As the German soldier charged, Patch shot him with his Lewis Light Machine Gun. The German dropped his rifle but did not fall and within a couple of seconds Harry decided to shoot him in his leg and ankle with his revolver to stop but not kill him. He recalled later that he had thought of biblical verses of when Moses received the commandments and the commandment: Thou Shalt not kill. Despite his firm religious and ethical beliefs, Patch went to fight - probably because he also believed in service to his country. He served again in WWII but on the home front and not in the military because he was too old at the time. Patch served 4 months in the trenches during WWI before he was wounded in the groin due to an explosion that killed 3 others in his unit. It was a day and an event that would haunt him for the remainder of his life.

It took him over 80 years for him to talk about it or anything else about 'the war to end all wars'. He was interviewed in 1998 for a documentary about World War I and apparently felt it was time to start talking because he realized then he was part of a vanishing breed. I imagine he did not think then he would be the last of them but he began to do several documentaries about WWI. In 2007 though the realization sank home and he made the following observation:

"Any one of them could have been me. Millions of men came to fight in this war and I find it incredible that I am the only one left."
—Commenting on graves at a
Flanders war cemetery, July 2007 (

Amazingly Harry was born in the 19th century - that would be the 1800's folks - in 1898. He lived through 3 centuries. He was a plumber by trade. He served on home defense in WWII being too old for military service by then. He married at least twice and survived both of his sons. Henry Asllignham, the next to last living soldier who had been in the trenches during WWI passed away exactly one week before Harry. Mr. Patch's view of war was a simple one, at least of WWI:

"Too many died. War isn't worth one life..."

I don't know that I agree with him on that point overall athough maybe he was right about WWI; WWII was a beast of a different nature. WWII, I think, was worth the price to defeat the evil in that one. As for Harry Patch and his view of WWI, as I said - maybe he was right on with that one. As he said, in 2004 when at a memorial for a battle, when he met Charles Kuentz (a 108 year old German veteran at the time):

"It was very emotional. We had both been on the same battlefield at Pilckem Ridge. He was a nice man, and we communicated, even though we had no common language. Then we both sat in silence, staring out at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of our fallen comrades. We had both fought because we were told to. All of those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now, what is the sense of that? Neither Charles nor I ever want any other young man ever to go through that again." (reference link)

Read more about Harry Patch at the above links, or if you have the inclination read about him in his own words in his autobiography: The Last Fighting Tommy. Lest we forget Harry Patch - he was a man of conviction and a man who served with honor, and was indeed the last surving soldier, The Last Fighting Tommy, who saw trench warfare in WWI.

All the best,
Glenn B

1 comment:

Jungle Mom said...

What a life span. He saw so much. maybe too much.